The Menu review

2023-03-17  Film and TV

I’m very glad I didn’t go to see The Menu at the cinema. Not because it’s a bad film, but because as somebody who suffers from intermittent anxiety, visiting a restaurant can sometimes be quite a tense experience.

Will I like the food? If I don’t, should I eat it anyway? Will I seem uncultured if I don’t recognise the more exotic menu items? Are the waiting staff secretly judging me based on our brief interactions or overheard comments? The Menu takes these anxieties, which I’m sure are common to some degree amongst much of the population, and cranks the dial up to 11.

Dinner is served

The relatively mundane opening sees a group of customers pay $1,250 a head to visit an exclusive restaurant on an island, but even as they tuck in to their first courses, there are glances and comments that set off those internal alarm bells. It really makes for quite uncomfortable viewing.

Among the guests are an obsessive foodie and his date, a restaurant critic, an actor, and a group of fintech bros. It feels like a very Knives Out kind of group. For the first third of the film we watch them tour the island and eat, with a looming sense of dread (owed to an expertly creepy performance from Hong Chau as the maitre d’, Elsa) and some very sharp comedic writing.

Then, like Triangle of Sadness (which at some point I’ll see if I remember enough of to write a review), The Menu takes a lavish, exclusive experience that most people could only dream of enjoying and takes it completely off the rails. To its credit, unlike Triangle of Sadness, the writing maintains its edge after this point and the second half is not entirely predictable.

Threading the needle

The trailer made it look like the film would end in simple bloodshed, but although there is some action and slashing involved, I can assure you that it retains its expertise in making you shift awkwardly in your seat throughout. In fact, it takes a huge amount of skill to blend psychological horror and dining cringe to such a degree while maintaining a natural pacing.

Particular credit goes to Ralph Fiennes, whose character Julian Slowik teeters on the border between gentleman and madman, having quite reasonable conversations with his guests one moment and asking the unthinkable of them the next. In many ways, he makes the film, balancing the needle at just the right point between comedy and thriller.

Another thing The Menu has a knack for is giving you hope before snatching it away - with a dash of wit to stop the mood from feeling too sinister. Just when it appears to be heading for a ridiculous ending - and the eventual denouement is still its weakest element - it changes course yet again. A classic? Maybe not. But The Menu is well worth two hours of your time.


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